Just when I was beginning to wonder how Kei Nishikori was consistently returning 135-mile per hour second serves from Nick Kyrgios, he began to shake out his arm on Saturday evening at Wimbledon. That arm shake was a reminder of the fragility that hangs in the air around the careers of both men when the spotlight turns the brightest.
Both Nishikori and Kyrgios have held the title of “next big thing,” the unfortunate label of being the next in line to try and stop a group of Hall of Famers known as the Big Three (Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic). Kyrgios first announced himself to the world in 2014 at Wimbledon, becoming the first teenager to shock a world number one at a major since the man he defeated — Rafael Nadal — did so to Roger Federer as a teen at the 2005 French Open. Nishikori has had the hopes of an entire country behind him. He was nicknamed “Project 45” early in his inner circles due to a quest to become the highest-ranked Japanese man in tennis history. Now leaps and bounds above that marker, Nishikori wants to get back to being a contender at the majors.
On another wacky day at Wimbledon that saw even more seeded players fall on both sides of the draw, Kyrgios did not seem ready for the beginning of his third-round match. Kyrgios came out completely flat and Nishikori surprisingly took the first set in 16 minutes. Throughout the match Kyrgios complained to his box that his movement around the court was not up to his personal standards. Viewers started to get apprehensive due to Kyrgios’s less than stellar history in matches when he is possibly compromised. Fortunately, in the second and third sets, the match was very competitive from both players and showed the vast contrast between their skill sets. Even then, this match was still Nishikori’s to lose. He simply outperformed Kyrgios in every metric except the ace count. Kyrgios came into the contest with a tournament-leading 67 aces. Nishikori’s return is one of his biggest weapons and he proved to be in fine form in holding Kyrgios to only 13 aces. Stunningly Kyrgios was able to convert only one break point in the match, early in the second set.
Nishikori took a step forward in being a legitimate contender by reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon for the third time in his career. He completely disarmed Kyrgios’s powerful serve and used lightning-fast footwork to retrieve everything the Australian threw his way. The placement on Nishikori’s own serve was impeccable and could potentially give him confidence as he moves forward at Wimbledon. Nishikori will be facing a blast from the past in his fourth-round match after Ernests Gulbis upset Alexander Zverev in five sets.
Gulbis — another snake-bitten “next big thing” — and Nishikori have not played since 2014. Back then both were in the top 20 and the future seemed infinite with time for their burgeoning potential… much like the NextGen opponents they bested to reach Manic Monday.
Funny how time flies.
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